Here's some more of the short story that's swirling around in my head. It follows discontinuously from the previous excerpt.
As a child I never truly appreciated the indignity of flying as an unaccompanied minor. I only did it once or twice and at the time I was probably too enthralled with what I perceived as the weighty responsibility of sitting in an airplane without my parents to realize that the unaccompanied minor system was almost explicitly designed to treat all children, no matter their age, as though they were four years old. All the same, if there had been a ten-year-old mind (mind, not brain, Tom often corrected me) in my ten-year-old body I'm sure I would have been thrilled at the idea of flying to the Leadership Camp by myself, or at least with Tom and no other adults who had any permanent connections to either of us. I would have interpreted the, as it was, unbearable coddling by the stewardesses (they were still stewardesses at this point) as some misplaced sign of respect for my position, their relentless officiousness as a bizarre self-abasement at these children who were mature and important enough to travel without their parents. But my mind was not ten years old by any means, and the sad fact was that the stewardesses were driving me crazy.
As committed as Tom and I were to living life as ten-year-old boys, I knew that neither Tom nor I could resist the impulse to mentally identify "adults" who were in fact younger than we were, and the two young women who were put in charge of us certainly fit into that category. The youthful enthusiasm that these women seemed to broadcast like blaring distress signals rendered their matronly treatment of us all the more aggravating, as did their undeniable sexuality. Indeed, one of the many sad realities we had come to live with in the recent months was the way in which encounters with any shred of sexual undertones seemed to cast the disconnect between our minds and bodies into sharper relief.
Tom's entreaties to the contrary notwithstanding, I managed to deflect much of their attention with curt "No thanks"-es as I pretended to focus on some age-appropriate piece of literature I had brought along with me for the plane. Tom often nagged me to act my assumed (or imposed, rather) age but I decided that since we were, just this once, traveling as bona fide "prodigies," I'd allow myself the luxury of behaving beyond my years. I did, however, grudgingly accept the little plastic wings, something I may have gotten away with refusing if we hadn't been flying with two additional camp-bound youngsters who enthusiastically accepted their prizes as we got on the plane. They were two girls, approximately our physical age, who didn't seem to know each other but had become fast friends in the terminal as a result of their common age, gender, and destination. Shortly after Tom spotted them and put things together I had to gently remind him that attempting to strike up any sort of conversation with these two girls would only lead to awkwardness and disappointment, and this was one of the very rare occasions in which he took my advice.
Unfortunately, although Tom managed to avoid directly creating awkwardness between himself and the girls, he managed to create some minor tension between them when the stewardesses came around to give us our peanuts. We were treated to our airline-branded snacks before the flight had finished boarding, a privilege no doubt designed to make us feel special and calm us down in preparation for the take-off, when the stewardesses would have to suspend their dreadful hovering and return to their special stewardess-seats. When Tom was offered his bag, he made the mistake of saying "No thanks, I'm allergic," which sent the stewardesses into a state that can only be described as the exact mid-point between a fret and a panic. Without bothering to get themselves out of earshot they hurriedly strategized as to how they could get Tom a proper snack before the plane took off, ignoring Tom's pleas of "No, really, it's okay, I'm fine," those little hiccups of politeness that handily relieve people of their etiquette duties when uttered by an adult but have no force whatsoever when spoken by a child.
When the two women realized that there was nothing on the plane they could give him, one of them ran out to the terminal and returned with a candy bar from a nearby gift shop, which she thrust into Tom's bewildered hand with the self-satisfaction of someone who had just saved a life and then hurried off to help with the final preparations for lift-off. Once the excitement had died down it immediately became apparent that Tom's brand-name, television-advertised candy bar, contrasted with the meager pouches the rest of us had received, created a great deal of resentment on the part the girls. Indeed, one of them was so bold as to openly scowl at Tom from across the aisle, as if to silently accuse him of faking his allergy to score a better snack. Some day, I mused, this girl would learn to express more devastating emotions with more subtle tricks of her face, but for now the raw anger in her squinted eyes proved to be an effective, if inelegant, means of making Tom feel bad about having caused a fuss.
Grasping the still-wrapped bar as though it were a gun he had just accidentally shot someone with, Tom gave me a sheepish look. I gave him a sarcastic thumbs-up and glanced across the aisle at the still-scowling girl. Tom swiveled to look at her again and, following an instinct no ten-year-old possessed, held out the candy bar and silently offered it to the girl. The girl's reaction was one of shock and confusion, and she literally recoiled at the unexpected offer. Her companion presently began giggling quietly with her hands pressed tightly over her mouth. The scowling girl quickly imitated this gesture, indicating that the two of them cared less about the candy bar than about making Tom feel bad one way or another.
Tom, at even more of a loss then before, turned back to me, desperate for some kind of answer as to what had just happened. "She thinks you like her," I said quietly. Then added, "Pervert."
Tom let out a sound that was a mixture between a grunt and a sigh and shoved the candy bar into the seat pocket in front of him, intending to leave it there as an unexpected treat for the next passenger (or, more likely, the flight crew). In doing so he noticed that someone had left a folded New York Times in the pocket. This he eagerly pulled out, and he then leafed through the newspaper until he found the crossword puzzle. As he rummaged in his backpack for a pen I lightly grabbed his arm and whispered, "Ten-year-olds don't do the New York Times crossword puzzle." He gave me a somewhat skeptical look and then did a quick scan of the esoteric clues listed on the page. His face took on a look of resigned disappointment, and he slowly folded the paper and replaced it in the pocket.
"USA Today, maybe," I said, as he fished a junior high school-level book on astronomy from his bag and began reading tragically out-dated descriptions of our solar system.
* * *
Despite Tom's repeated theoretical assurances that we were decidedly not living in a predetermined history ("We're still in our own present," he often said. "Never forget that."), and that the fact that certain things happened in our original lives didn't mean they would happen again ("We didn't have this conversation the first time, did we? No, we were doing something else. Now we didn't do whatever we did the first time. That's different. History has changed."), I tried my hardest as we soared through the air to remember if there had been any horrific plane crashes, or, rather, any plane crashes, horrific or otherwise, during the approximate time period in which we found ourselves traveling through the airspace between Orange County and Denver. I couldn't think of any, of course, which didn't mean there hadn't been any. All the same I couldn't help but think of all the advances in aviation safety regulations and technology that hadn't happened yet. I didn't know what they were specifically (apart from the as-yet-to-be-eliminated smoking section, sadly), but all the same I wasn't thrilled with the fact that I was flying Pan Am.
Tom spent much of the first portion of the flight staring out the window (I agreed to switch seats with him after the candy bar incident), his face directed sternly toward the ground as his eyes drifted in and out of focus in the way they did when he was thinking hard about something, something that would probably require several discrete processing steps between his brain and his mouth were he called upon to put it into words. Looking at him then I knew that he was equally likely to be thinking about the specific answers he hoped to find in this boy from Tuscaloosa at the Leadership Camp, the broader challenges and mysteries of our overall situation, or some completely unrelated scientific problem that he had left unsolved in his previous future-life.
At times like this I envied Tom's intellect, the mind that had been hardened and conditioned by years of rigorous scientific training and exploration until he could view anything, even this, as an intellectual adventure rather than an emotional disaster. Throughout our various ordeals Tom seemed to consistently give off the impression that he was laying the groundwork for an ambitious scientific treatise that no one but him or me could ever read and that no one but him could appreciate. It was this attitude of his, the strange melding of genuine giddy curiosity with his unfamiliar childish body, that I had at first tried to emulate but had resolved myself to merely drawing strength from. Tom alone was able to distract me from the realities of everything I had left behind twenty years in the future. It was for this reason that I was increasingly terrified of being away from him for too long, and that his favorite illustration for the non-predictability of our "new" future ("I could get hit by a bus tomorrow. Just because I'm from the future doesn't mean I'm invincible.") was more disturbing by the day.
As we sat there, me staring at Tom and Tom staring at nothing but the inside of his mind, we were suddenly interrupted by the return of the officious stewardesses with our special unaccompanied minor meals, which differed from the standard fare as far as I could tell only in that the miscellaneous food matter was shaped into an approximation of hamburgers and french fries, we seemed to have larger pieces of "cake," and we were given the option of juice boxes or milk in addition to the usual soft drinks.
We were, of course, served before the howling masses in the rest of the cabin, and the small Styrofoam tray of marginally identifiable meats, vegetables, and starches snapped Tom out of his thoughts. Even with Tom's massively developed consciousness he was still a slave to hunger (though he remained too embarrassed to go after his hidden candy bar).
The next twenty years, in addition to its strides in airplane safety, would bring several quantum leaps in the area of airline cuisine, a thought that didn't escape me as I pondered the passable meal in front of me. Even Tom, as he examined his food, seemed to allow a modicum of judgmental emotion to bleed into the objective curiosity with which he usually considered these quaint, previously unexamined relics of our original childhood.
His dubious stare slowly drifted across his tray toward mine, then rose to meet my own eyes. He suddenly frowned, gestured dismissively at my tray, and said, "What's the deal with airline food?"
And for reasons I only partially understood at the time, I laughed harder than I had in twenty years.